As the energy the U.S. receives from solar power increases, more land is allocated to hosting the solar panels that produce it. And in many cases, landowners have written off the grasses and plants below the panels. But that may not have to be the case--new research about the viability of such land is proving how productive this vacant space could be.
In a study published by PLOS One in November 2018, Oregon State University researchers describe their findings that shade cast by solar panels installed on parched or water-stressed land creates a beneficial microclimate, increasing moisture retention and water efficiency, and boosting the health of the plants and soil below the panels. The plants showed higher nutritional value and productivity--the researchers measured a 90 percent increase in late-season biomass in areas under PV panels. They say these impacts should be considered when designing solar farms so the land can be "agrovoltaic," generating both solar power and crops. This doubly productive technique is common in Asia and Europe, but not yet in the United States. They write, "The agricultural benefits of energy and pasture co-location could reduce land competition and conflict between renewable energy and agricultural production." Plus, they say adjusting the panels to cast a uniform shadow pattern could encourage consistent biomass benefits, so the land can be used as resourcefully as possible. While further study is needed on the economics of agrovoltaics, and on the effects of various climates on these results, semi-arid pastures with wet winters appear most likely to benefit from such a setup.
Other U.S. farmers and solar facilities are experimenting with low-impact solar development that incorporates plants and even livestock. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), one burgeoning technique is to keep a herd of sheep on land with solar panels so they can graze on the grasses that grow beneath ground-mounted installations. The sheep naturally keep mowing costs low. In some cases, sheep farmers can partner with solar developers in a mutually beneficial exchange--the farmers gain grazing land, and the solar developers gain affordable vegetation control. In his presentation "Overview of opportunities for colocation of agriculture and solar PV," NREL analyst Jordan Macknick writes that pairing solar arrays with vegetation and livestock can benefit landowners by controlling wind and soil erosion, increasing pollinator habitat, and safeguarding soil health; and it can benefit solar developers by reducing site preparation and the costs associated with installation, operation, and maintenance.
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|Title Annotation:||Green Gazette|
|Publication:||Mother Earth News|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2019|
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